Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Predilection for (Food) Collection

As this Blog enters its seventh month of existence, my wise and efficacious readers most likely have gathered that the records of the Royal Society's semi-official dining club, "The Thursday's Club called the Royal Philosophers," have proven essential to the Lady of Quality's dissertation research.  Indeed, for 38 years –– from 1748 through 1785 –– this club assiduously recorded everything the members ate for dinner, from "Beef-Stake Pye" all the way down to the butter and cheese.

But alas.  In 1786, for some unknown reason, the treasurer ceased to record the 'Bill of Fare' in the dinner books.  (However, he unflaggingly continued to keep the attendance records for years.)

Why?  Did the Bill of Fare no longer matter to him?

In Annals of the Royal Society Club, published in 1917,  Sir Archibald Geikie attributes this unfortunate event to mere happenstance, proclaiming the two minutes of extra work being "too much for the increasingly feeble fingers of the devoted treasurer."

But I'm skeptical.  After all, the treasurer's hand-writing post-1786 resembles that of a man in perfectly good health (even for a physician, no less).  Thus, noble readers, I here propose an alternative explanation.  The 'Bill of Fare' ceased to be recorded in 1786 because it was no longer integral to the club's identity.

I implore you, noble reader, to hear me out.

Knowledge in the 18th century was often gleaned by
collecting and classifying like objects.
So why not food?
First, what we think of as "scientific research" today was, during the 18th century, heavily intertwined with the practice of antiquarian collecting (read more about it in my last post.)   Writing down what was eaten every week was an act of empirical observation.  When "chines of beef" were donated to the club, the treasurer would always weigh and measure them, duly recording his findings in the dinner books.  This zest for documentation also extended to the flavors of different foods.  For a bunch of guys who were trying exotic fruits for the very first time, the collective consensus that the flavor of cantaloupe was "equal if not superior to pine apple," was not just a piece of subjective whimsy.  It was a serious attempt to deduce standards of taste.  "Science" wasn't done in labs in those days; it was practiced in places like taverns and coffee-houses.  And more often than not, people would experiment on themselves.

Indeed, discerning the different flavors of fruit was a serious matter
But not only was the 'Bill of Fare' a matter of empirical observation; it also forged a "common taste" shared among the members.  I have already mentioned that members of the Thursday's Club did not all share the same social rank.  Sure, all of them were well-off by the standards of the day, but they could range from nobles to apothecaries, from politicians to poets.  By writing down everything that they ate, they were proclaiming to the world, and to posterity, that they were men who were cosmopolitan enough to know what a pineapple tasted like, but preferred the English "Apple Pye" to all other sweets.  They were men who happily dined on "Calves Head Hashed" and "Tongues and Udders," but disdained suspiciously French "Fricassees."  They were men who, by means of their urban street-smarts and savoir-faire, could dine on twenty different kinds of fresh fish and have cauliflowers in winter.  

By 1786, the Bill of Fare no longer performed the same scientific and social "work" that it once did.  Antiquarian collecting was losing relevance as the principal means of organizing knowledge.  And pineapples and cantaloupes were no longer complete edible novelties to those who could afford them.

In the 19th century, we start getting the menu with all of its a la carte options.  But the 18th century 'Bill of Fare' was an entirely different beast.